Detroit Shuts Off Water to Thousands of Broke Residents

Written by Alan Pyke

As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department moves to shut off water to thousands of residents who are delinquent on their bills, a coalition of activists is appealing to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights to intervene on behalf of the bankrupt city’s most vulnerable citizens.

Their report, filed Wednesday with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, alleges that the DWSD crackdown is part of an effort “to sweeten the pot for a private investor” to take over the city’s heavily-indebted water and sewer system as part of Detroit’s broader bankruptcy proceedings.

One of the activist groups behind the report, the Detroit People’s Water Board, notes that city residents have seen water rates more than double over the past decade at the same time that the city’s poverty rate rose to nearly 40 percent, putting the cost of basic running water beyond reach for tens of thousands of households. Earlier this week, city lawmakers voted to raise water rates by a further 8.7 percent.

Almost exactly 50 percent of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s 323,900 total accounts were delinquent as of March, according to the Detroit News (via Nexis), with a combined $175 million in unpaid water bills outstanding. The department announced at that time that it would begin an aggressive campaign of water shutoffs, and a DWSD spokesman said that it has shut off water to nearly 7,000 separate clients since the beginning of April. DWSD mailed warnings about the shutoffs in March, but the People’s Water Board report says that some residents it interviewed either never received a warning notice or had their water shut off before the payment deadline printed in the notices had passed.

One key piece of the activists’ complaint has to do with allegedly disparate treatment of residential and commercial clients by the DWSD. The People’s Water Board claims that delinquent business entities “have not been targeted in the same way as residential users,” a claim the department strongly disputes.

“There are no sacred cows. We aren’t discriminating in terms of individuals or businesses,” DWSD spokesman Bill Johnson said in an interview. “Last month we shut off about 3,600 accounts, both businesses and residential. Everybody is getting cut off who is $150 or 60 days in arrears. That is our policy and we’re ramping up our enforcement of that policy.”

The department has not yet had time to break out the data on water shutoffs by client category, Johnson said, but he hopes to be able to report exact figures on the number of business clients who have lost water access soon.

The DWSD’s roughly $5 billion in debts have turned out to be the most difficult piece of Detroit’s bankruptcy, after initially seeming to be on track for a rapid resolution. Neighboring counties have balked at absorbing the city system into a regional water and sewer authority, and subsequent plans to privatize the city’s water services have been criticized as too rapid, too costly, and too damaging to residents’ quality of life. The system’s massive backlog of delinquent bills makes it harder to convince anyone, whether private company or public authority, to shoulder the DWSD’s obligations. But if the water shutoffs were aimed at making the department look like a shinier prize in bankruptcy negotiations, they would likely be targeted at corporate clients directly, for the same reason that Depression-era gangsters robbed banks: that’s where the money is.

While the vast majority of the nearly 165,000 delinquent accounts reported in March are residential clients, those private households owe much smaller amounts than the commercial and industrial clients who are delinquent on their DWSD bills. Fewer than 11,000 delinquent accounts relate to commercial or industrial clients. But those delinquencies average more than $7,700 per business, according to the numbers published in the Detroit News in March, compared to an average debt of less than $600 per residential delinquency. Non-residential clients account for almost half of what DWSD is owed despite being less than 7 percent of total delinquencies, according to the March figures. The People’s Water Board obtained a document with more recent figures which shows a similar distribution of the delinquencies but lower total debts to DWSD as of May.

“We are asking the UN special rapporteur to make clear to the U.S. government that it has violated the human right to water,” said Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and a key member of the coalition that put the report together. In addition to creating international pressure to stop the Detroit shutoffs, Barlow said, the UN’s intervention could lead to formal consequences for the United States. “If the US government does not respond appropriately this will also impact their Universal Periodic Review,” she said, “when they stand before the Human Rights Council to have their [human rights] record evaluated.” A request for comment from the UN official to whom the report was submitted went unanswered.

This post originally appeared on ThinkProgress


Jana DiCarlo
Jana DiCarlo3 years ago

Luna, its great that you have work so you can pay your bills.
Sadly Detroit has been hard hit. I don't pretend to have an easy answer, but water, like daylight seems to me to be an essential, and also wards off disease as others have mentioned.

I think a concerted effort to lift the economy in Detroit - so there is a higher level of at least basic employment- is likely the only answer.

The local govt needs to look at what kind of businesses can be lured into the area to provide jobs. people are not paying simply because they are delinquents - but because of a lack of funds!!

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se3 years ago

It is a basic right to have clean water. Now....., if there are a problem with this, they need to solve it on another plan than just cut off the water from their citizens. Money should NOT be an issue conserning water. Have they thought about illness and spread of sickness by cutting off the water?

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago


Teresa W.
Teresa W3 years ago


Linda McKellar
Past Member 3 years ago

OMG, how painful is that! I once had my water shut off for hours, blocked by a kidney stone. Hurt like hell. ...Just kidding.
I'm sure if these bastards could charge for air they would do that too and then shut it off if you didn't pay.

Julie D.
Julie D3 years ago

Residential clients should not have their water turned off. Not only for humanitarian reasons but for those of health and sanitation as well. Water, air, and sunlight should be freely available to all residents of any country. These are natural resources nature has provided for all living beings, human, animal and plants, and they should never be "privatized". I can understand a nominal fee for the cost of pipelines and filtering, etc. Businesses who use water should have to pay for what they use, and in this case seem to be the biggest users. There needs to be some distinction made between residents and businesses so that private residents are not cut off.

Gerald L.
Gerald L3 years ago

Brilliant move with 40% of their residents living in poverty. Great health implications, pail flushing toilets, drinking water out of rubber garden hoses with high lead levels. Washing dishes in dirty water. Being forced to use costly laundrymats and bathing where?

At minimal the city should put water taps on fire hydrants in residential areas so people can get pails of water. If so many business are in arrears (thanks for the data Marianne) this will put pressure on those with holding payment. I also agree that many people are terrible at prioritizing. Betcha many of these families all have a cell phone for each family member, barely cook at home, on & on.

If the hydrants have water taps the frugal folks can save money, avoiding bottled water that generally costs more than beer when you live in a food desert and only have a corner store or gas station to buy food from.

Privatization will only drive the monthly bills up higher.

Fiona Stonehouse
Fiona Stonehouse3 years ago

I too have read all the comments. I disagree that succinct is illiterate. Many of us are busy people.
For me the issue is a little unclear. If we are talking about personal water supply then I believe those governing owe the people water whether they pay or not regardless of by laws etc. It is a basic right to have clean water.
If we are talking about business who have not paid that is another matter. It depends on how the water is being used, whether it is for the company profit or personal use of staff. It could get complicated and is not a simple issue to resolve except for the fact that we all need water to survive and those who govern do so by the will of the people and owe a duty of care for all of those people, not just the wealthy.

Luna starr
luna starr3 years ago

Uh I WORK and pay my bills FIRST

Steve F.
Steve F3 years ago

I have just finished reading the earlier comments posted by readers. Surprisingly, opinion seems to be evenly split between those endorsing the city's action and those who oppose it.

Who has the better case? Those who support the water cutoff present rational, well-reasoned arguments. Those who decry the cutoff typically have one-word comments such as unjust, stupid, and greed. And the latter group have nothing constructive to add, merely implying that deadbeats are entitled to free water, presumably forever.

If I had to choose who I would want to be on the city council of my own town, I would vote for folks from the former group. I'm sorry, all you liberals, but the town's gotta survive.